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Kathy Hogarth
Associate Professor, School of Social Work, Renison University College, University of Waterloo, Canada

Decolonization and Internationalization: Critical Challenges for Social work Education in Canada

This article will engage with the issues of decolonization and internationalization as two core challenges facing social work education in Canada. These are in no way dichotomous issues as there is a strong interconnectedness between them. Both decolonization and internationalization present social work education with opportunities and challenges. Both decolonization and internationalization are related to the colonial endeavor. In moving both the discourse and practice decolonization and internationalization further, social work education must address issues of equity as a means of critical and sustainable engagement.

Issues of decolonization and internationalization are not unique to Canadian social work education. In fact, they are included as part of the strategic priorities of more than 84% of universities across Canada (AUCC, 2014). What is of concern is how social work education has responded to these national challenges. How has social work education added to the discourse and what remains as some of the ongoing challenges? Though, in this article, for sake of organization, decolonization and internationalization are presented as two separate issues, it is a false dichotomy. Decolonization and internationalization are inextricably linked both as responses to, while at the same time engaging in, the colonial endeavor.

The Challenge of Decolonization

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Canada in its 2015 report raised some critical issues and concerns related to the histories and realities of Indigenous peoples in Canada. As a result of the TRC’s report many academic institutions began to chart a course of decolonization. What exactly does decolonization in the context of social work education mean? This very question is central to one of the major challenges facing social work education in Canada. The reality of decolonization in the practice of education is distilled down to more course offerings on Indigenous histories and current realities, creating more opportunities for and recruiting more Indigenous faculty and students and, to a much lesser extent, creating more welcoming spaces for Indigenous peoples within the academy.

The history of social work in Canada rests within a colonial frame (Hogarth & Fletcher, 2018; Johnstone, 2018) and this is not unique to Canada (Ranta-Tyrkkö, 2011). Social work as a profession has and continues to play a pivotal role in enacting and re-enacting colonialism (Fortier & Wong, 2018). How then do we disentangle our professional selves from the colonial milieu when it is so inscribed in the fabric of our existence? One approach to addressing the colonial bent of social work practice is to correct for the colonial bent in social work education.

Many of the 43 accredited schools of social work in Canada have aligned themselves, to varying degrees, with their university’s strategic plan on decolonization or, for some universities, Indigenization. Several social work programs have increased both elective and core course offerings on decolonization theory. There has also been a greater drive to hire more Indigenous faculty within programs of social work. The accreditation standards of the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE-ACTFS) is currently undergoing review with an eye of including standards or principles on decolonization. Yet inherent in all of these responses are grave challenges. Moreover, despite these positive movements, decolonization remains an ongoing struggle for many institutions and programs in Canada.

Attempts at decolonization within Canadian social work education and in the academy at large, has taken place within a very small vacuum. Given that the TRC was the driver for the decolonial discourse, much of social work education has adopted a somewhat narrow preoccupation with a decolonizing mission that makes invisible the histories and realities of non- Indigenous racialized bodies and colonial subjects. Yet, even within this narrow frame, decolonialism remains a challenge. Often in social work education attempts at decolonization remain depoliticized and dehistoricized which means that many realities around colonialism are left out of the decolonial discourse. Further, although the work on decolonization within social work education is prioritized as a necessity that work has been challenged by a westernizing discourse and understanding which continues to center settler perspectives (Tuck & Yang, 2012).

Another key challenge for social work education in relation to decolonization is that decolonization remains in a very theoretical and metaphorical space wherein we attempt to decolonize our curriculum, and our institutions. We teach theories of decolonization but we have not come to terms with what the practice of decolonization would mean. In the words of Tuck and Yang (2012) the practice of decolonization would bring “about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life” (p.1), a reality we are not ready to embrace.

Towards a goal of remaining relevant, social work education must contend with decolonization in a way that moves it beyond theory to manifest itself in practice. The longer our education remains in a purely theoretical space, the further away we move from ever realizing a practice of decolonization. Reflexive pedagogy requires that we question our ways of knowing and being and how these become evident in praxis. Furthermore, social work education on decolonization cannot take place in a vacuum that only reflects in small measure the realities of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Decolonizing education must also engage with the histories and realities of bodies that have for centuries been part of the colonial endeavor – decolonization education must embrace an equity focus that activates interlocking systems of oppression and domination (Hill Collins, 2002). This means giving attention to the complex relationship between systems of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, citizenship, age (Hill Collins & Blige, 2016). Decolonizing social work education must ask questions about who is missing in the educational structure which includes the classroom and the curriculum.

The Challenge of Internationalization

The other major issue taken up in this article concerning social work education in Canada is internationalization. The global crisis and global movement of bodies presents both challenges and opportunities. Academic institutions are uniquely positioned to address both. The move towards internationalization in fact can be viewed as a positioning of oneself as relevant amidst these global shifts. The prevalent understanding of internationalization, widely shared among Canadian universities and colleges, is that it is a process integrating an inter-cultural and international dimension into all areas of the university (Knight, 2003). In theory, internationalization would mean that the delivery of education and the purpose and function of educational systems within institutions would all be impacted in a symbiotic way through the internationalization mission.

As noted previously, by 2014 over 84% of universities across Canada had prioritized internationalization in their strategic plans (AUCC, 2014). For many of our academic institutions in Canada the practice of internationalization is a bit far removed from the theory and is concerned largely with the commercializing of education as a revenue generator for institutions and programs (Khorsandi, 2014). It serves largely an instrumentalist function. One of the key challenges related to internationalization in Canada is the very limited attention given to curriculum (Bond, 2009); and almost none related to pedagogy (Beck, 2012).

With it’s focus on social justice, social work programs, where they engage in internationalization endeavours, tend to move beyond commercialization in positioning internationalization as a means of enhancing diversity in the classroom. Beyond the classroom, much of the work done by key social work educators on international has focused on social work’s “treatment” of the “international” other. Therefore, internationalization in the Canadian social work context has taken on a performativity approach.

Another way social work has engaged with internationalizing is in creating greater access for students in social work programs to understand and experience the world through international placements. Within this matrix of accessing international experience, these placements are linked to cultural competency models where the level of analysis remains descriptive and falls shy of any critical engagement. Wehbi, (2009) notes that such a focus on the “descriptive understanding of culture without engaging in a critical analysis of the contextual factors which surround it potentially reinforce[s] misconceptions as cultural stereotype (p.51). In this way, social work’s limited engagement in internationalization serves as another re-engagement in the colonial endeavor. In advancing internationalizing social work education must move beyond the aesthetics of diversity to involve the critical questioning of the relationship between global movement of bodies, curriculum and Empire. Without such a critical gaze our education continues to enact, what Spivak, (1998) terms, epistemic violence. A violence through education that reinforces, legitimizes and enshrines practices of domination (Galván-Álvarez 2010). The pedagogy of internationalization needs to be decolonized. We need to move towards internationalizing our education and not merely our classrooms (Razack, 2009).


Social work education has in many ways humanized the discourses on decolonization and internationalization. Where academic institutions struggle with theoretical constructions that do not quite resonate with practice, social work education is advancing these discourses, reframing for example, the commercialization of internationalization to harnessing the benefits of diversity in the classroom. Yet, there is still much work left to be done. Despite these advances social work education still falls short of challenging colonialism and racism embedded within these frameworks and in so doing continues the constitution of the racialized Other as invisible and unimportant. Both decolonization and internationalization must take place within a framework of equity. Without moving towards a more equitable lens the colonial guards will remain unchanged and social work education continues to participate in the simple exercise of re- dressing and re-presenting colonialism. Social work education must determine to work against the complicity of continuing the colonial endeavor even under the guise of decolonialization and internationalization. Social work education must engage with the critical questions of who hold the power to determine the discursive frame and for whom? Whose voices are left out and why?

Advancing these discourses is not an option however, in doing so we must widen the frame. We must decenter Whiteness.


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